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Nick Demske
Nick Demske (Fence Books, 2011).

First Book Questionnaire: Nick Demske

1. Does your manuscript bear any relation to a graduate thesis project?

No. I haven’t done any graduate work in writing or poetry.

2. How do you feel about these poems now that they’ve materialized in book format?

I’ve had a vague suspicion for a while that I started writing as a kid to manage some sort of disease. Maybe this is true, maybe not. Regardless, now that I’m working on a second manuscript, I’ve tried to articulate to friends how it feels different from the first one, and this is pretty much as close as I can get: while the second manuscript to me feels kind of like naming the disease—a diagnosis—the first manuscript now, in retrospect, feels like a catalogue of symptoms. Like someone freaking out and bleeding from places and just not knowing what’s wrong with them. The second manuscript, on the other hand, feels more like, “Oh, I see what’s wrong with me: this.” My hope is that the next step, or at least an eventual one, in some subsequent writing or art, will be an art that reflects the healing process from such a disease. I don’t feel like this thinking is too wishful, but it’s certainly not the place I’m in now—that is if my writing can be taken as a reflection of my well (or not-so-well) being.

3. What was your experience when you began publishing? What challenges did you encounter?

Well, I had no idea what I was doing. Generically put, that was the biggest impediment. Where I live, in Racine, Wisconsin, there are not a ton of people trying to publish writing that I know and many—I’d say most, even—who do decide to end up deciding to self-publish a book through a vanity press. It’s not a literary culture here in that way, meaning most people don’t know about sending work to magazines and journals because they have never been told by someone that it’s even an option. They’re led to self-publishing through a vanity press because when you exist outside of that culture and you look for info by yourself on the process of publishing, you’re suddenly prey to the giant marketing campaigns that these vanity presses can afford, and so it’s the first information you come in contact with. When you sign into your e-mail or a social network, there's coincidentally an ad from one of these presses waiting just for you. And there’s no one around to disabuse you of that misinformation, because so few people around here are even aware of the practices of publishing (as I think about them now anyways). I was really fortunate in that I had one professor at my undergraduate college, the excellent poet Anne Shaw, who was actively trying to publish poetry and was also willing to take me through that process. If it hadn’t been for her, though, it would have been very difficult to ever navigate that process, or even know that it exists, really.

Also, a more concrete challenge was the fact that I didn’t own a computer. I handwrite my poems, so I did all my typing, journal research, and submission preparation at the public library.

Last challenge I’ll mention, hopefully not too obvious: I got the shit rejected out of my work a lot. Alas, it happens. To almost everyone. Everyone gets that, pretty much, so to anyone looking down that barrel, don’t sweat it.

4. How, if at all, did chapbooks prepare you for the making of a full-length collection?

I've actually never published a chapbook, aside from a self-published thing I threw together in 2008 (it was just half of the manuscript that got published). And also something that a woman who we call my prosthetic mother, the artist and psychologist Tina Ulrich, printed, designed and bound for me when I was in 9th or 10th grade called “Loco Boy Makes Good.” It was just a selection of some of my writings up until that time. But I didn't even know the word “chapbook” at that time. I doubt I even really understood distinctions between poetry and prose back then. So, I wouldn't say that either of those experiences really prepared me in any way for publishing a full-length book. But I will say it helped me understand that I wanted to share my writing with others—that the goal of my writing, in general, is to hopefully put myself out there as someone who has had a lot of malfunction, but also as a person who has survived (and is still surviving) it. These little self-published chaps helped me realize early on that the power of sharing these ugly, awful things I created—things people don't usually discuss or share with each other—was that it seemed to relieve a lot of other people who were experiencing the same things and just thought they were crazy. I think that happens a lot, especially to younger people. When we get a little older, some seem to realize that no, it's not just me, but everyone is kind of intensely deranged. Which, ironically, is really helpful to recovery.

So how's that for an answer to a question about chapbooks?

5. How did you shape and order your manuscript?

I was pretty meticulous about this, and I've interestingly had a lot of people—particularly a lot of people outside of poetry culture—share their disapproval, I guess you'd call it, with my arranging. I tried to create a kind of abstract narrative arc to the manuscript that kind of presented a problem or problems first, then goes on to catalog examples (like I mentioned earlier), but eventually ended with more of that tone of survival I'm talking about. So that means the book is heavily front-loaded with the nastiest of those poems.

It's not until pretty far into the book that the work reveals itself as at all traditionally beautiful or inviting or appealing, at least for many people. And I've gotten that feedback a lot. Part of me wants to dismiss it as a kind of maternal “Why can't you ever just write a nice poem” kind of thing. And I think that does apply here, unfortunately. But I also have to acknowledge the fact that I organized the book to be really unpleasant from the start, if for no other reason, to let the reader decide early on if they're in or not. So it's a criticism I take seriously, anyways. When I finger-fuck a light socket, butt-fuck someone in the mouth, and Whitmanically exclaim “Fuck me, shit me,” in the first three poems of the book, I feel I need to take a lot of responsibility with that and constantly reconsider whether or not it's the right decision. Since my second manuscript, at this point, is called Starfucker, though, that probably shows that I'm still convinced of the value in immediate obscenity.

6. Was anyone or anything indispensable in the process of making your debut collection?

Anne Shaw, who I already mentioned, and Andrew Fell, another poet mentor of mine, would be the people that I'd have to cite most immediately. But honestly, a list like that for me always feels so overwhelming, in the best sense possible, that I try to avoid even attempting to compile one. I feel so indebted to so many people in regards to writing. Whether it was the aggressive encouragement of my parents (prosthetic or not) or the support of my girlfriend, Angela, which she has so unflinchingly offered me for so long, or the insanely huge myriad of poets/friends who have taught me things along the way. It's corny, but I swear I get emotional just thinking about it. I've been so lucky in that sense, to be in such enormous debt to such an ocean of people, especially writing-wise.

7. What is your impression of book contests?

Oooh. Well, they suck, but it’s how my book got published, so my word on that might be crap. The one thing I can say about book contests that might be of some value is this: if you like a press and you have a manuscript and they have a book contest, enter it. Don’t expect to win; that doesn’t matter. Just enter it because you like the press and the press needs money. And they usually give you a book for your money or something, too. Book contests are very arbitrary. Had Joyelle McSweeney—sweet, sweet Joyelle McSweeney, my literary godmother—not been the secret final judge of the one I entered, it's really unlikely it would have been picked. So just go into the process acknowledging that random aspect of it. It’s a corporate model, basically. But it’s how things are working right now, so pay attention to the good parts of it. You get to support a press financially, you get to have at least one person read your work, you may get a good book. Try to not take the results too seriously, because they’re the bullshit of the process. There were fourteen finalists in the contest my manuscript won and, as pleased as I am to have been picked out of those, I don’t have any misconceptions that my manuscript was somehow better than the others. After all, my manuscript was passed up in other contests first, right? It’s all just poetry. It’s all just the same. It’s like saying “which seashell is better?” or something; it’s just not the right model for art. But, since it’s the set up for now, might as well make friends with the cool parts.

8. How did you learn to navigate the press world?

I started with magazines and journals, researching online and then, from there, once I found one I liked, I would follow its links page and learn about new ones from there. Since all of the new ones have links pages, too, it’s this endless network of resources. Also, if I read a book and really liked it, I’d look at the book’s acknowledgments page, too, to see what magazines the poems had been published in first. If a journal is publishing work you like, send to them. It doesn’t matter if it gets in or not, just support them. And one potentially mutually beneficial way to support is by submitting.

9. What aspirations did you have for this book?

Work through a tangle of personal issues and hopefully come out with less. I think I may have accomplished that, though it’s hard to know. I also really want the book to be a testament, or maybe even a template, for anyone else wanting to do the same thing.

10. How would you describe this work?

The book: a hyper-obscene deconstructed sonnet sequence in which the content works against its form.

My work in general: a barf storm of cultural contradictions and challenges, dragging poetic formal tradition, kicking and screaming, into its recesses.

11. Do you work primarily on discrete poems, serially, toward a project, with a set of concerns, or otherwise?

Mentally, I’m always trying to think on a manuscript level, for better or worse. I try to decide on some formal constraints or concepts to unify the whole project, as well as topical concerns, but both of them are always inevitably just starting points, rules that I make, in some ways, just to break. Even topically, I started writing this new manuscript Starfucker, just on celebrity culture, then it expanded into media in general and, at this point, it’s gotten to be very specifically about Pure War theory, the Feminist theory of Rape Culture and how corporate thinking has managed to ooze into every aspect of our society. I came to all of these things because I think they’re all interdependent now—I think our entertainment industry and celebrity culture could not exist without these other things as foundations—but I never would have said that at the start of this manuscript. The work changes you, though; writing the work changes you and starts to teach you things and show you connections you wouldn’t have otherwise made. I love that aspect of writing poetry so dang much, man.

12. Whose poems affect you or your work?

Aesthetically or stylistically, I feel my book is really indebted to John Berryman's Dream Songs more than any book of sonnets proper (if there is such a thing). I tried to read a lot of sonnets while I was writing the manuscipt. My friend, the excellent poet Nicholas Michael Ravnikar, is a constant poetic influence on me. And he turned me on to Berrigan's sonnets at one point, which definitely had some influence. And another killer poet—who I would say has influenced my work a good deal—Daniel Bosch. Then he turned me on to Ben Lerner's first book, which is all nonce-sonnets, called The Lichtenburg Figures. When I say to people Ben Lerner is a big influence on me, they for some reason vehemently disagree, but I feel like that book and my book were really similar—in so many ways that I was dismayed when I first read it. I had to strike out lines from my manuscript because they were so similar to lines Lerner had written 3 or 4 years prior.

That’s particular to the book. For my work now: Arielle Greenberg, Ish Klein, Duriel Harris, Gabe Gudding, this grad student in DC named Daniel D’Angelo that no one has really heard of yet, Cathy Park Hong, Daniel Borzutzky, Aafa Michael Weaver, Joel Craig, Jennifer Karmin, Laura Goldstein, Ching-In Chen. This question always comes up in interviews and I always dread it because the best I can do is give a pathetically incomplete list. And of course I'm not even considering poets who aren't alive still. There’s so much excellent stuff out there to read and I’m so pleased to get to be friends with many of my favorite living writers.

13. What are you working on now?

Aside from Starfucker, which I’ve already touched on (perhaps the wrong turn of phrase there), I’ve been writing a(nother) manuscript that stems out of sexual trauma called “Emotional Feelings.” And I’ve been writing poems about this poetry super hero I made up in undergrad named Otis Henry. I pretty much poop those poems out, not like my other projects, so I just write those when I’m too tired to work on other stuff. And, most recently, I’ve been having an e-mail correspondence with a poet in Chicago, Dolly Lemke. It’s been really enjoyable, weird and unexpectedly emotionally charged. I’ve ended up liking that project a lot just because it’s gone through all these phases in such a short time—phases I don’t think either one of us expected, intended or even, necessarily, wanted. But it’s refreshing to be writing poems specifically for one other person to read them first. And I feel like I won the lottery, getting a poem every other day from Dolly.

I'm also working on getting more exercise. Nothing necessitates inertia like being a poet. So, with that, I'll wrap up this questionnaire in order to go and get massively ripped.

Yay poetry!!!! Yay insanely huge muscles!!!!

Nick Demske Nick Demske lives in Racine, Wisconsin and works there at the Racine Public Library. His self-titled manuscript was chosen by Joyelle McSweeney for the Fence Modern Poets Series Award and published by Fence Books in 2010.

(The Volta | Friday Feature)